The scarcest resource at nonprofits is bandwidth. Period.

Ever been in or around a nonprofit and heard something like:

Think of what we could do if we raised another $500 (or $50,000 or $5,000,000)!

What would you do?

In our experience, the answer is often something like “we would do this new campaign or program by hiring another person or part-time researcher or a consultant.” Or the need for new money/people is driven by the desire to take on a new project.

Let’s face it, ambition and heart are huge in most organizations. Nonprofits and the people in them want to do good. One more campaign. One more program. We can do it.

Stop. Organizations (even, ahem, cushy ones) are stretched thin. Even if you’re managing time well and not burning out chances are good that you’re tackling too much and maybe turning out some mediocre results (which, by the way, would probably be improved by the extra funding that would pay for more people – right?).

You never ever have enough bandwidth

This piece is inspired by Mark Suster’s recent piece on the scarcity of management bandwidth at startups. Mark points out that as a VC he meets with leaders of new companies all the time and his most common reaction to hearing them describe what they’re doing is basically, “whoa, that’s way too much.”

At a tech startup this is seen most often in new features. Every new feature, project, or marketing idea adds complexity and, most likely, is something that will need to be supported forever regardless of whether or not it works.

Complexity adds to staff time which is a burden on management. A new idea or project (no matter how brilliant) is a shift of focus. Even if you cut previous programs you’re redirecting staff and management time to something new and adding to lead time.

The time and mental energy it takes to get a project rolling is rarely accounted for in nonprofits (or startups, apparently). Shifting gears (or adding gears, as the case may be) means more planning, more meetings, more reporting. Less doing.

Mark Suster focuses on scarce management bandwidth at startups. And for good reason. I think the problem at nonprofits is bandwidth in general. This can inevitably become a debate over scarce resources (if only we had more money, better computers, better facilities, more volunteers) and for some direct service agencies its true that more resources often means more service provided and more people helped.

Yet in most cases this is an issue of not focusing, unclear goals, weak management, being pushed by leaders (inside CEOs and outside funders, for example) to do more. Resulting work can often be of the mile wide and inch deep variety – broad but shallow.

Many startups will flounder and go out of business at this point as revenue/capital/enthusiasm dry up. Nonprofits, however, can plod along with diminished resources. This may create a culture of diminished expectations, where doing okay is worth a pat on the back, a raise or, heck, a step up into directing programs.

Bandwidth is precious. You get used to stretching it, doing too much, accomplishing less than you should.

Protecting and creating bandwidth

What’s to be done? Here are a few ideas.

  • Say no. That is hardly as easy as it sounds. We know that all too well.  But pushing back on ideas (however great) and requests is the best way to stay focused and not get spread thin. This means saying no or some version of it to staff, board, donors, community leaders and more. If you have clear, program-driven explanations people will understand and probably even appreciate your focus and honesty.
  • Realize that “nonprofit management” is an oxymoron. Nobody gets into nonprofit work because they love management. Few people with nonprofit management responsibilities receive training or support. Most just end up responsible for a team and would rather be doing direct work themselves. This means that as a leader/manager you need to be willing to seek out and accept help in becoming a better manager. And trust your team to do more of the direct work.
  • Make timesheets matter. This isn’t the same as “make sure everyone fills out a timesheet.” No no no. If staff can’t stand timesheets its probably because they don’t seem to matter. It is an HR or grant reporting thing. As a manager, sit down with staff and figure out how to connect time to goals and outcomes. What is the work that actually goes into getting a job done? Be creative with tracking time and continually reflect back with the team on how time connects to outcomes.
  • Kill regularly scheduled meetings and conference calls. Or at least shed some of them. Ever notice that a new project often means a new weekly conference call (and dozens of emails ahead of time to figure out when to have that call/meeting)? Is work getting done in those regular meetings? Or are they “check-ins?” Think carefully about who is there, why, and if you need to meet at all.
  • Reflect. Reassess. Repeat. Get into the habit of checking on progress towards goals, what’s getting your team there and what’s getting in the way. Do more of the former that’s getting you there and less of the latter. Genius. Not really. But we’re surprised by how often it’s simply assumed that work and being busy equals progress. Further, try not to set up weekly check-in meetings to assess progress. See above. Have more conversations. Ask pointed questions. Listen more and listen well.
Good luck and back to work.

Photo: Drowning under a mountain of paper by net_efekt, Flickr.

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  • http://www.grassroots.org/ Jordan Wilson

    I love ideas you gave, especially saying no. Such a simple piece of advice but it is something that most people forget! Thanks for the help.